New Frontiers in Research Fund | Published: 2022-03-14 11:15 AM (eastern)
Danika Littlechild knows there are moments that define your life’s passion. These are the moments that push you to be better, do better and demand better, the reasons you are who you are.
For the Cree woman, that realization dates to when she was just four years old and living on Neyaskweyahk, the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Treaty No. 6 territory in central Alberta.
“My late uncle, who I was very close with, would come and pick me up and walk me through the bush from my house to my kokum’s [grandmother in Cree] house.”
[T]here are very few places left on Earth where nature and Indigenous Peoples are not under stress.
With every step she took alongside her uncle, Littlechild was closer to understanding the gifts of the Earth, her relationship with nature and, eventually, what it meant to be Cree.
“On the way he would give me teachings about different plants, different fungus and what we use them for. He would teach me the Cree words for those, and he would tell me when to harvest them and how to do that properly in accordance with our teachings.”
Those teachings stayed with Littlechild, fueling her love of her territory, her heritage, and her spiritual connection. But those moments are now just memories, because all of that natural wonder, that biodiversity, has disappeared.
“That same path I used to take with my late uncle is now crabgrass,” she says.
Those weeds, she continues, began to grow after oil and gas development, directional drilling, prolific use of pesticides and herbicides in nearby fields, and the overuse of groundwater. In her own lifetime, wetlands disappeared.
“What that did for me is it just demonstrated how quickly we can lose that which is very precious to our lives,” Littlechild adds. “I’m 46 now. I have a four-year-old and I can’t take him on that same path. There is nothing to show him. I can tell him stories from my own childhood, but I can’t teach him anything, because there is nothing to show him there.”
That loss of lands, waterways, biodiversity and conservation, Littlechild feels, is a snapshot of the crisis Indigenous communities face around the world. It is a crisis that isn’t just a physical loss, but a spiritual and cultural destruction perpetuated by a lack of inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the government policy-making process and in decision-making around resource development and climate change.
“Those decisions are being made about us without us,” says Littlechild. “I don’t think it’s necessarily that we want to sit at the table that’s been there for the last 50 to 60 years. We want to reconstruct the table.”
Littlechild, who worked as a lawyer for two decades, serving Indigenous Peoples in Canada and internationally through the United Nations system, is now an assistant professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is a co-principal investigator on a team of diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders and researchers behind the Ărramăt Project. Over 60% of the team consists of women and those of diverse gender identities.
The Ărramăt Project has been awarded a $24 million dollar grant, over six years, through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2020 Transformationstream, to conduct Indigenous-led research in biodiversity conservation and study its relationship to the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Indigenous Peoples involved in this first-of-its-kind large-scale research project aren’t just contributors. Instead, they are experts on issues that affect their rights and communities.
“There are so many Indigenous Peoples who are losing the land they depend on for health and well-being,” says Brenda Parlee, the nominated principal investigator on the project, professor, and a former Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta.
“We are seeing dramatic losses of biodiversity due to climate change and resource development. Many people think about biodiversity as [it is] found in tropical climates, or in relation to large species like snow leopards or woodland caribou, but we must also be attentive to less charismatic species, such as prairie grasses and mosses that support our ecosystems as a whole,” says Parlee.
Now we can ask, “What are the concrete Indigenous ways of knowing?’” and “How can that be transformed into action?”
Parlee adds that Ărramăt is not just about these environmental issues.
“Declines in biodiversity are accompanied—daily, weekly and yearly—with impacts on food security, opportunities for healing and health care, and the loss of Indigenous languages. That language loss is not only a key indicator of the change in the well-being of Indigenous Peoples, but also represents a loss of rich knowledge needed to support nature and people.”
Littlechild says there are very few places left on Earth where nature and Indigenous Peoples are not under stress.
“If we continue on this trajectory of giving Indigenous Peoples a small say in decision-making, and allowing them only tiny windows of opportunity to have a voice, then as we move further in trying to tackle climate change, biodiversity laws and pandemics, what we are going to see is the heightened impacts on the lives and territories of Indigenous Peoples and on their ability to be well.”
The Ărramăt project’s goal is to provide a more holistic and inclusive view of biodiversity conservation, to highlight the impact that policy decisions have on Indigenous Peoples’ spiritual and mental health, and the realization that connection to land brings equilibrium to animals and overall well-being. The NFRF Transformation grant will be used primarily to support Indigenous-led research.
“Our research findings will make a difference in influencing policy,” says Mariam Wallet Mohamed Aboubakrine, a Tuareg from Timbuktu, Mali, and co-principal investigator for the Ărramăt team.
Aboubakrine says that, with her medical degree, and through her role as former president of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), her expertise provides a unique perspective to co-lead the project. There have been very few opportunities and resources for Indigenous Peoples in Canada or worldwide to lead their own research and produce published research. Ărramăt will provide much needed opportunities to produce evidence and data from an Indigenous worldview, to mend what Aboubakrine calls the “very large gap between universities, and other organizations involved in biodiversity and health research, and decision-making.”
“What I see in this project is the opportunity it gives to me and to all my Indigenous relations,” adds Aboubakrine. “I see here a unique opportunity for us to be ourselves, but also to go in-depth into key issues that matter to us, like the importance of biodiversity and environment to our identity.”
“I think all of us have been entrenched and embedded in this work for so long, but have always faced the challenge of producing transformative change,” adds Sherry Pictou, who is Mi’kmaw and a co-principal investigator on the project. Pictou is also Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Governance at Dalhousie University, and former chief of Bear River on Mi’kmaki territory in Nova Scotia.
Pictou says public awareness of Indigenous rights is at an all-time high in Canada and around the world, due to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (and Two-Spirit people), and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Pictou and the team hope to harness that momentum, creating a catalyst for change when it comes to biodiversity conservation as it connects to Indigenous health.
“I look at Ărramăt as an opportunity for us to bring that to the forefront, as opposed to trying to adapt to another methodology or adapt to another philosophy. Now we can ask, ‘What are the concrete Indigenous ways of knowing?’ and ‘How can that be transformed into action?’.”
Rounding out the team of co-principal investigators are Murray Humphries, director of the Centre for Indigenous People’s Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, and John O’Neil, professor and former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and who has 40 years of experience working to strengthen Indigenous health systems both in Canada and globally.
I am excited to see the work reveal how Indigenous knowledge and stewardship practices define both the origins and contemporary centres of ecological research, biodiversity science, and conservation biology.
O’Neil says this project will revolutionize the way Indigenous Peoples benefit from research in their territories.
“It is an honour and a profound responsibility to be part of an Indigenous-led project that will embrace global Indigenous approaches to ethics, methodologies and the integration of knowledge into changing policy.”
“I am excited to see the work reveal how Indigenous knowledge and stewardship practices define both the origins and contemporary centres of ecological research, biodiversity science, and conservation biology,” says Humphries.
As for Littlechild, she will never be able to walk that same path with her son as she did decades ago with her uncle, on reserve in Maskwacis. Instead, she focuses on creating a new path forward for her son and for an entire generation.
“We want to leverage this new landscape that we find ourselves in,” says Littlechild, “[to bring] renewed hope for making space for true indigenization and decolonization in the context of health, biodiversity and conservation. We cannot give up on Mother Earth. We cannot give up on the seemingly small places that impact our lives in big ways.”
“We are not suggesting that our project is going to change the world, but what we are suggesting is that we can get to a place where Indigenous Peoples can realize their existing rights framework, within their own systems and the systems that have been imposed upon them. That requires systemic change. I sincerely believe that is possible.”